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Larry Summers vs Stephen Hawking

Four days ago, the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz published a de facto interview with Larry Summers, the ex-president of an ex-employer of mine:

Former Harvard president Summers rebukes Hawking for boycotting Israeli conference
Note that the fastest free way to get to the article (plus 9 more articles a month) is to "register for free" and choose "Facebook".

Summers, along with Stanley Fischer (an equally Jewish ex-teacher of Summers at MIT and an outgoing governor of Bank of Israel), was recently named as the most promising candidate to replace Ben Bernanke behind the steering wheel of America's central bank. He is bullish on the U.S. (and Israeli) economy, predicting a 3% growth by the end of the year and his answers don't unambiguously prove that he would accept Bernanke's job.

But the most important part of Summers' answers to Haaretz were his opinions about Stephen Hawking's boycott of a presidential conference in Israel. It shouldn't be shocking that Summers chose to publicly react because the "president" from whom the adjective "presidential" is derived is no one else than Shimon Peres, a long-time friend of Summers'.

It's been reported that Noam Chomsky and a few comrades were behind the pressure that led Stephen Hawking to the boycott which is why Summers may want to start to bring some ethical principles back to his town, Cambridge Massachusetts, before he chastises a famous physics professor in the other Cambridge.

I know both men rather well, admire them (although, if I weren't afraid of being insulting, I could say that in recent years, Summers the economist sometimes sounds like Paul Krugman light: I actually do remember Summers the warrior against a spiralling debt rather well), have spoken to Summers many times and, have touched Stephen Hawking ;-) (although being a co-author of Andy Strominger who's been a co-author with Stephen Hawking might be counted as a more intimate path towards Stephen Hawking; no, I haven't fainted in his office yet).

The men would probably agree with one another – and with your humble correspondent – if they discussed feminism and related topics. But needless to say, Summers is right when it comes to boycotts.

Summers says that the right path towards the resolution of things that we see as offensive is a debate rather than ostracism. Academic interchange shouldn't suffer just because this suffering may be used as another tool of political pressure. Except for extreme circumstances. Right. Moreover, Summers disagrees with the idea of singling out Israel – a country that surely doesn't look like an exceptional black sheep in the context of the Middle East where brutal human right violations, chemical weapons, and beheading are on the daily schedule.

I totally sympathize with his second argument and I do agree with most of the first one, too. Well, there exist contexts in which politics and the law are "at the top" and the scientific interactions are nothing else than "examples of trade and aid" that may be uniformly banned if a rogue state could benefit from those things. On the other hand, it's very problematic if such boycotts are invented by individuals or "cliques" in separate industries such as science and it's counterproductive if interactions that may only bring people closer, and not further, and that don't represent a tangible physical threat are discouraged. After all, the freedom that our nations and their governments guarantee for researchers are among the things that make us better than some... other nations (not to mention our own nations in the Middle Ages).

Needless to say, these debates about the right way to criticize Israel are completely academic from my viewpoint because as far as I can say, a politically sensible person in Europe or America should think about the optimum ways to strengthen and extend Israel – to add "Palestine", Syria, and Lebanon to its territory as first three steps, for example – instead of thinking about ways to harass this island of relative freedom and reason in the ocean of unrestricted violence and medieval brainwashing.

Moreover, the boundary between anti-Israel proclamations and bad ol' anti-Semitism is very subtle.

I would say that anti-Zionism is just the "politically correct" label that contemporary anti-Semites (sorry, Jews, your being Jewish doesn't mean that I can't count you as elements of this set! In fact, due to some characteristic Jewish masochism, many of you are among the near-leaders of the set!) like to use for their attitudes whose beef is still the same. Also, I have carefully studied the evolution of anti-Semitism here in Central Europe of the 1930s. It did start with various selective regulations that encouraged non-Jews to treat Jews differently (less pleasantly) and the gas chambers were largely inevitable end points of this journey. This whole journey is unacceptable for me from the very beginning and I think that it's an ethical rule to treat Israel on par with any other similarly large (e.g. European) democratic country that is comparably advanced. Anything else is more or less manifest anti-Semitism.

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reader lucretius said...

Your answer is really ironic, since I do live in Poland. My father was a Jew, who survived the Jew in Warsaw and actually was in the A.K. (The Home Army) and fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 - in fact in some of the bloodiest fighting (the Leśnik Unit, which defended the Warsaw Mint). But none of his comrades knew that he was Jewish, and if they found out he would have been lucky to have been just kicked out. He and his brother survived the war (the rest of the family were murdered). It is true that they were helped by some Polish friends but, and here is the key point: these Polish friends who helped my father and his brother survive the Holocaust, were, already after the war, terrified that someone might find out that they had helped to save Jews. I am not making this up, because I knew them. We emigrated in 1968 and you must know what happened then, although obviously all your knowledge of these matters is based on propaganda, which is constantly stuffed in the the brains of young Poles, who never experienced these matters. I, on the other hand, experienced all this in person and still experience this today. What you say about the fact that these is less violent antisemitism in Poland today than, for example, in France is true - but only because the percentage of Muslims in Poland is less than 0.1 percent, which in France is is several percent. But recent poll of Polish schoolchildren found that 40% of them had anti-semitic views - the highest percentage in Europe except in Hungary.
But look into the comments in almost every Polish newspaper whenever the topic of Jews comes up - and you will find that about half of the comments are anti-semitic, many in the way that the Nazis would appreciate. Yes, of course, Poles were kind to Jews and all risked their lives for them during the War but the Jews are so disgusting that they they slander them in return and try to extract money from them. Besides, secret Jews are running Poland today, right? And there is still no anti-semitism in Poland, although you can find frequently "Zydzi do Gazu" (Jews to the Gas Chambers) written on walls, etc, etc.
In fact, this is in great contrast with the Czech Republic, which is probably the least anti-semitic country in Europe. I visited it last weak for the first time since 1968, when we emigrated from Poland by driving from Warsaw to Vienna. It had been occupied by the Warsaw Pact troops which included Poles, and the Czechs refused to serve us in restaurants when they found out we were Poles. But they changed their mind when my father told them we were emigrating and why.
I assume that you really believe what you wrote, although it is far from reality that it takes some effort. But you must be pretty young and have allowed yourself to be brainwashed, in a way that is quite easy here. But I lived here (in Warsaw) before 1968, and since nobody including myself know I was half-Jewish I could here what people said then, and what people said now. Just last year in a bus an unknown man sitting next to me on a bus started a conversation, then, of course, he came to the subject of Jews, who, according to him, murdered the Polish officers in Katyn and have adopted their names and now are governing poland and writing for Gazeta Wyborcza. I was not surprised for this sort of thing is quite common here - but somehow you have never noticed it. I talk freely about such matters with Czechs but I prefer to stay away from this topic with Poles - can you guess why?

reader lucretius said...

I assume you have in mind the conference that Hawking chose to boycott? It had nothing to do with physics - it was only a meeting of celebrities (most of them of mildly leftist type, like Barbara Streisand, because these are the sort of people Peres likes to associate with) and Hawking was invited as a celebrity (which is what he really is today). The boycott got a lot of publicity but there was no loss to science at all.

reader Dilaton said...

Gosh, I thought indeed it was a physics conference ...

reader lucretius said...

Isn't it curious how you got this idea that I think "every Pole is an anti-semite"? Well, I actually work at Warsaw University and I do it only because I like my students and my colleagues here. I taught at Japanese universities for over 20 years so and with Polish salaries I certainly do not do it for the money. I am also a British citizen so I could go to lots of places. Do you think I am a masochist who enjoys living among anti-semites? Actually, I don't even consider myself Jewish and I am not considered Jewish by Jewish religious laws. To make it more funny, my mother's maiden name is "Dmowska", although you probably would deny that there is any irony in that. But it is pretty clear that you are far too young to know anything at all about these matters - you are just repeating stuff that others put into your head and you believe in it because you want it to be true. I, on the other hand, speak from my own experience, which is vastly greater than yours. Moreover, I am much more objective because, as I wrote, I do not consider myself either Polish or Jewish, and indeed I do not really belong anywhere. I am not proud of it and don' think this is the best way to be for a person, but it has the advantage of making one detached from things. As for the second world war or Stalinism - well you know nothing about it. But let me tell you something that may perhaps surprise you (or may not): the people who I most admire for what they did or tried to do during the war where certain German officers, such as Axel von Dem Bussche or Hans Oster, and that shows that I obviously don't think of Germans as a nation of anti-semites and neither I think so of Poles. But if you have not noticed how much easier it is to meet an anti-semitic Pole than an anti-semitic Czech (for example) than you either are quite blind or simply allowing your emotions to overcome your reason.

reader anon said...

You are funny.

I write about racial hostility against Arabs and Poles in Israel, and anything you can say "And you are lynching Negroes".

If I was running a B&B in Poland and I had a guest from, lets say, Saxony, I would try to be as nice to him as I only could. I would never ask stupid questons, or accuse of anything only because in my guest's home land, nazis from NPD have some support. If I together with my pals met a guy from Saxony in a bar, we would never make him any reproaches concerning WWII.

If government of my country brainwashed people with prejudices against Jews or Germans, I would protest against my goverment instead of rebuking nazi or NKVD crimes.

There is an israeli documentary that shows how young Israelis are lied about Poles, and you have even no basic decency to co to condemn theese actions, and instead, you justify them by writing how your father was afraid of antisemitic AK.

I know that there antisemites in Poland but they are of minor importance. There is NOP, there is Blood and Honour but I dont see this people in politics or on the streets. There always will be some people with extreme views, even in Israel there was a case of neonazi jewish-descendant group. This is a consequence of normal distribution. But they are only exceptions, not the majority.

I personally know not a single person which I could describe as an pure antisemite. This is maybe because my friends are educated. But even if I look on websites like niezalezna which are sometimes accused of being antisemitic I can notice some jewish editors and pro-zionist, pro-Israeli articles.

I do not belong to any political party, but I know people from PO, the main party in Poland, and they are all pro-Israel. People I know who are pro-palestinian are usually leftist but not anti-semitic.

Giving exuces to Israel's goverment which brainwash it's people against my nation could be either caused by some delusions or by malice.

I'm younger than you but this changes nothing. Your arguments ad personam wont change the fact that there is a problem of racism in Israel and, saying nothing of polish-israeli problems, I'm sure it's easier to meet an Israelii who thinks that Arabs are vile animals than a Pole who would like to repeat Holocaust.

reader Gene Day said...

I wish it could be done so simply, Lubos but it cannot. Sunni money and arms (money and arms are equivalent, actually) are pouring in from Saudi Arabia and the other wealthy Sunni States and these are more or less matched on Assad’s side by arms and manpower from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Hezbollah and, of course, Russia. Russia is not heavily involved yet but they likely would not let Assad fall. The US is helping the rebels at this point but this is probably a mistake because all the rebel factions willingly trade everything with each other.
The west, meaning mainly the U.S., cannot afford and does not have the political will to attempt to occupy these places. We have shot our wad in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving both places in, basically, the same mess that we found them. Taliban will play a huge role in the future of Afghanistan and Iraq will be lucky to avoid all-out civil war.
We lost the war in Vietnam because the US did not have the political will to go all out and win, which, from a strictly military viewpoint, we easily could have done. Politics always trumps military considerations and NATO is without fangs. This is sad but true.
I, too, would welcome Israel into NATO but it wouldn’t make any difference. Without massive help Israel could not occupy these places either. You can throw Jordan into the cauldron as well.

It’s all a huge mess and may get a lot worse.
My hope is for a stalemate and some kind of negotiated settlement.
I absolutely guarantee that the United States is not going to send troops into Syria or Lebanon. It would be political suicide in my country.

reader lucretius said...

A few more words of explanation. You get very excited every time antisemitism is mentioned, which in a way is understandable and don't even notice that I don't consider all "antisemitism" equally bad - some of it I even consider neutral, like a certain aesthetic taste. There are many examples of "civilised anti-semitism" particularly in the 19th century, where it often was linked with a certain dislike of the backwardness and isolation of ultra-orthodox Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, who to many did not seem to belong to European civilisation and rejected all attempts at assimilation. For example, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, who I enormously admire, distinguished between assimilated German Jews, whom he wanted to be treated as full German citizens (after the overthrow of the Nazis) and un-assimilated Eastern Jews, who he wanted to emigrate to a Jewish State. In fact, his attitude was not very different from many modern Israelis today towards the so called haredim (who originate mostly from Poland) but it can be fairly called a kind of anti-semitism - a dislike of what actually was a central part of Jewish culture. Another interesting example is Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the great Prussian field marshal and one of the greatest military thinkers in history. I suspect you don't know that Moltke, when he was a young lieutenant wrote a "History of Poland" (he was a prolific write, the author of over 20 books on various topics, all of them very interesting). His history of Poland is remarkably fair and famously refers to 15 century Poland as one of the most civilised countries of Europe, although his main purpose was to show how even a country with very high level of culture can be destroyed by a bad political system. Moltke also devotes a lot of space to the Jews. He describes the great and cruel persecutions of Jews from the time of the crusades until his times and concludes that any people who have been treated so badly, must hate their oppressors. He admires the Jewish talents and adjustability, but ends up by describing the Jews in Poland in these words:

"Though their presence may have been a misfortune for the nation in after years, they were certainly at the same time a national necessity. They were a misfortune owing to the imperfect organization of the government, which made it easier to burn them than to turn them into good citizens they were a necessity because, though they were viewed with hatred and envy, no one thought of imitating the diligence which won for them their wealth."

and later:

"Perpetually oppressed by capricious laws, the race raised itself by perseverance and cunning. Ill-treated, persecuted by fire and sword, still they returned, or others took their place ; robbed and plundered repeatedly, the wealth of the land was yet theirs. A strange mixture of outward weakness and inward strength, humble and fawning to superiors, cruel and despotic to dependents, oppressed, ill-treated as a whole, they yet individually repaid their oppressors with despotism. Even in his degradation, the memory of his natural dignity, the sense of his oppression, clings to man, and the Jews opposed hatred and contempt to violence and enmity ; senti- ments that took deeper root in their hearts because of the concealment which was necesary."

There is no doubt to me that that this is both sympathetic but also anti-semitic, and the anti-semitism derives from the fact that Moltke hardly new any Jews at that time, and deduced these things from what he learned from his studies of Poland and from his own logic. This is an excellent example of "civilised" and "rational" antisemitism. Now compare this with anything written by Roman Dmowski or Adolf Hitler (I can post some quotes, side by side and I doubt you will be able to tell which is which).

reader lucretius said...

One more thing, definitely my last contribution to this thread. (I really regret I allowed myself to be provoked into this discussion, one reason why I am a mathematician is that in my field I don't have to deal with this sort of stuff). This is only for those who read Polish: I suggest reading this link:,prof-antoni-dudek-niemcy-maja-racje-w-ak-byli-antysemici-pytanie-tylko-ilu

Presumably profesor Dudek and others who commented on his article (note the reference to Rowecki's report in one of the comments) is lying about the AK (why?) and presumably is also ""deeply steeped in paranoia, seeing antisemitic beasts everywhere you move, knowing that your neighbours dream at night of rebuilding death camps, hearing hoarse voices shouting dreadfull things like "Zydzi do gazu".

reader lucretius said...

"I would say that anti-Zionism is just the "politically correct" label that contemporary anti-Semites (sorry, Jews, your being Jewish doesn't mean that I can't count you as elements of this set! In fact, due to some characteristic Jewish masochism, many of you are among the near-leaders of the set!) like to use for their attitudes whose beef is still the same. Also, I have carefully studied the evolution of anti-Semitism here in Central Europe of the 1930s. It did start with various selective regulations that encouraged non-Jews to treat Jews differently (less pleasantly) and the gas chambers were largely inevitable end points of this journey. This whole journey is unacceptable for me from the very beginning and I think that it's an ethical rule to treat Israel on par with any other similarly large (e.g. European) democratic country that is comparably advanced. Anything else is more or less manifest anti-Semitism."

reader anon said...

"I really regret I allowed myself to be provoked into this discussion, one reason why I am a mathematician is that in my field I don't have to deal with this sort of stuff"

Mathematics is way of dealing with ideas that may but also may not have their reflection in reality. I do empirical science and that's why, unlike you, I try to be aware of distortions caused by omission bias, confirmatory bias, mere exposure effect ect.

"his is only for those who read Polish: I suggest reading this link..."

I agree with some of the view of prof Dudek and especially with sentence:

"Jednak mówienie o antysemityzmie Armii Krajowej jako organizacji w całości jest całkowitym nieporozumieniem"

(AK cannot be viewed as an antisemitic organisation)

but there are sentences that are pure bullshit like:

"dy jednak pytamy o to, jak wielu Polaków ratowało Żydów, ilu było szmalcowników, a jak wiele Polaków pozostawało obojętnymi, to na pewno największy odsetek społeczeństwa stanowili właśnie ci, którzy byli wobec tego wszystkiego po prostu obojętni. Choć trzeba przyznać, że to oczywiście wynikało w pewnym sensie z antysemityzmu"

(most Poles were indifferent to nazi crimes and it was caused in a certain sense by their antisemitism).

No! It was caused by nazi terror, by the dread and fright, by the fact that Poles who were caught on hiding Jews were exterminated together with their familes, by the fact that many Poles were victism of the national socialism exactly in the same way as the Jews, an even those who survived were meant to be exterminated at a later time.

Most people are disgusted of any form of genocide and I'm sure tat if they only had a button to stop this madness, they would use it without any hesitation.

I advise you to start getting knowledge about AK from serious sources, whose authors tried to eliminate any kin of bias, and not single opinions or individual private stories. If I were bulding my opinions in such way I would believe in many absurds.

Let me say you a story. In my family there is a marriage not directly related to me. I see them as both funny and sad people. They were born after the war and were raised during red terror, and even now they are hardcore communists. She was an active member of PZPR, he was a member of SB. They live on a incomparably better level than during the times of PZPR. They have nice house, two cars, they have enough money to go on holidays to Mediterrean sea. Why they still believe in communism? Because it was an ideal system! All the problems were caused by external imperial forces or sabotage of groups like Solidarity! One time there were taking about diversion in their home region:

"Wojtek, you must understand that everything you have been taught is wrong! You're being fed by propaganda. Remember that history is written by the winners. But we have lived in those times and we have seen the truth with our own eyes! I remember for example the Colorado beetles, I remember how fields were covered whit those nasty bugs! My mother, my own mother saw airplains arriving from the side of Krasnik and dropping those insects. There were many people that recognized that they were american planes. They came from their bases near Berlin! Those are the facts and we have seen all theese thing with our own eyes."


Idont think that those people lie on purpose, they were simply brainwashed in such a way that they are extremly biased in selecting facts and creating connections between them. There was a Colorado beetle? There was a plane? Plane came from the west? As long as we deeply believe in communist propaganda all theese factcs fit together in a perfect way!

reader lukelea said...

This is an interesting discussion. I do not know the situation in Europe or Israel first hand, but I do observe a widespread assumption among Ashkenazi Americans that Poland is and always has been full of anti-Semites. There is also tremendous ignorance among Ashkenazi Americans of the history of their own people in Poland and the Ukraine -- most notably its dominant role as overseers of Polish and Ukranian serfs under the Arenda system, which they have never heard of.

Given this historical background I am frankly surprised there has not been more anti-Semitism in Poland than appears to have been the case.

Ignorance begets bigotry, though it is not the only cause

reader anon said...

To balance views of my opponent, I would recommend you writings of polish historians like Chodakiewicz, but above all, I would also recommend you reading some polish literature created over the centuries. I think that it could be very hard to find most valuable examples in your country (I also suppose that you dont have enough time). I have just to notice that, indeed, there were some strictly antisemitic authors like Gorski but most prominent and most important polish authors like Mickiewicz, Slowacki or Orzeszkowa are sometimes described as.... philosemitic (it's not a joke). And "Koncert Jankiela" ("concert over concert - let's love" - a poetic description of jewish musician playing dulcimer making polsih auditors feel deply moved) from polish national epic "Pan Tadeusz" is considered to be one of the most important part of polish literature (and generally whole polish culture) ever written and was later an influence for many other polish artists. Some other authors like Biernacki or Reymont described polish-jewish relations in quite balanced manner, showing that there were some polish-jewish tensions but it was not hatred (as some would like to see it). I myself consider literature as good estimator of social attitiudes (better, when examined collectively than single historical works written by single authors that were directly connected with the topic of their work). Major part of polish antisemitic literature was written before XVII century and it was caused by very primitive an rough religious views of people of those times. Nonetheless even if medieval Poland was not a delighful heaven for Jews, it was surely incomparably more hospital place for them than Western Europe or major part of Middle East - the fact that their population in Poland was so high is a good confirmation of such situation. Poles certainly do not have to be specially ashamed of anything when compared to other nations. Religious hostility is a part of history of all nations, including Jews. Even today they're some religious antisemites just like there are some religious jewish racists. Incidents like this are proof that racist bigots can be found anywhere:

Jews trying to make themselves nothing than innocent victims of global antisemitism is exactly the same kind of lie, as dening existence of polish szmalcowniks or antisemitism of polsih nationalists before the war.

Societies evole and I just would like to see symmetry in polish-israeli relations where noone accuses me of anything only because of my nationality, exactly in the same way, I do not accuse anyone only because he has the common roots with some NKVD butchers or orthodox religious bigots. I would like also to see PC to be wiped out from this world so supporting Israel wont be anymore a mandatory condition to be not labeled as an antisemite. And people of different nations could coexist without prejudices caused by primitive historical resentments.

reader lucretius said...

I got so carried away by writing about Rathenau that I forgot the point I wanted to make about "Zionism", that I think Lubos forgot to make. The point is this: when Israel did not exist, one could be a anti-zionist without necessary being anti-Semitic. One was simple against an idea - the idea to create a Jewish state. But now the situation is different. Israel exist and it is not going to go away voluntarily. Whatever you yourself may wish, the Israeli Jews love their country no less than other people love theirs and will fight to keep it. So to be anti-Zionist must involve wishing to destroy what already exist since there is no way to move back in time to before Israel was created. And than means that every anti-ZIonist, including the self-decared ones here, must wish the destruction of Israel and what it entails. And therefore there can not be the slightest doubt that every single anti-Zionist is an anti-semite of the very worst kind imaginable.

reader cynholt said...

what I gather, Gene, the goal of the Syrian crisis is 1) in the short term,
degrade Syria's military - especially its missile arsenal (and by
extension allow Israel to degrade Hizballah's missile arsenal) so
neither party can be an effective actor in the upcoming Iran war, and 2)
in the long term destabilize both Syria and Lebanon as part of Israel's
overall plan to destabilize and break up ALL the Middle East states.

This is Israel's policy and it is fully supported by the neocons,
the military-industrial complex, the oil companies, the banks who
finance them, and the politicians who receive their campaign
contributions and bribes from those entities.

There is no turning back this
tide. There will be no diplomatic solution in Syria and any discussion
of it is about as interesting as how many angels can dance on the head
of a pin. People need to wake up and smell the excrement that lies at
the heart of the US corporate state.

reader Gene Day said...

It is not feasible to degrade Assad’s military capability. To neutralize his aircraft and his missiles would require the west to first gain air superiority and this would take at least 720 sorties according to our Defense Department. The political will to do that is just absent both in the United States and in the other NATO countries. It is not going to happen, not ever.
Worse, Russia could deliver those S300 defensive missiles and this would make it a very costly endeavor, costing American lives. It could even bring the US and Russia to the brink of war. It-will-not-happen.
You are equally wrong in thinking that Israel wants to destabilize all of its neighbors. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Stability is in Israel’s best interest and in ours.